CSA...and the fabric of society?

When was the last time you bought something from an actual person?  From a business run by someone in your community?  Or even from an employee who you recognize and who you knows you as one of the regulars?  I could talk all day about how fresh the just-picked vegetables are, not two days out of the ground.  Or how it's environmentally better to eat food from a small local farm than from corporate agribusiness more concerned with profit than with ecological sanity.  But consider the idea that meeting your day-to-day economic needs with businesses that are part of the local fabric of society -- having a person-to-person relationship with not only the seller but the producer of those goods -- may in fact be the most important result of buying your food from a local farm.

There's something we enjoy about the small business and the old-school main-street.  The "Towne Center" developments (Fairfax Corner, OneLoudoun, Reston Town Center, etc.) capitalize on this desire for small-town character, but in facade only.  While actual main-streets are comprised of local businesses creating a center of local culture, these faux main-streets are dominated by corporate business, islands lost in a sea of parking where even the ice cream shops and yoga studios are national chains.  Our politicians also capitalize on this appreciation of main-street businesses, with their talk of supporting "America's small business owners," but their policies have little to do with the main-street small businesses that enrich our day-to-day lives.

As much as people would like to live in this sort of world, when was the last time you interacted with a business like this?  Perhaps you stop at the independent coffee shop?  A local bookstore, or deli?  Maybe your mechanic owns the garage, or your hairdresser rents their chair.  But for your day-to-day goods, the go-to source is almost certain to be a national chain or box-store retailer--or Amazon.  These places are so convenient, and with such low prices, that it takes some real work to shop at a business owned by a real person.  We don't often have an easy opportunity to buy our day-to-day goods from the kinds of businesses we would like to see comprise the fabric of our communities, and even when we do, most of us rarely take advantage of it.

And so I encourage you to think about signing up for the CSA not because of the fantastic vegetables, or because of the great recipes every week, or because eating seasonally and sustainably increases your connection to the natural world...but because it enriches your life for something so critical as the daily food on your table to come from a local farm -- from local people.

Week 21: Surprise, low of 20 degrees!

Wow, we're nearing the end--only one more week to go! 

Suddenly, after weeks of unseasonably warm weather, on November 10th we see a forecast low of 20 degrees. When the weather report changed a few days ago, I thought this was a miscalculation. A fluke, surely to be corrected soon. Crops that laugh at 30 degrees risk real damage at 20. We had a long, wet day today in preparation for the surprise freeze--but in a way, this is what we signed up for. These sorts of days are an adventure, in a way, a test: can we do it?

We began with the CSA picking, then after lunch we covered the at-risk plants (fingers crossed!), and set into the soon-to-be-frosted pepper patch to pick as many green peppers as we could in the time remaining. We finished picking in the dark, which was rather comical, though surprisingly possible. A day of work well done--but not done yet! We still wanted to pack the CSA bags, since Friday morning will be freezing cold with 18mph winds--no time to be outside.  With the bags packed and loaded into the van, I ordered celebratory pizza for us all and, although we were cold, damp, and tired after spending 12 hours outside under the November clouds, I knew that we were quite happy to have done just that. Quite happy to have seen the challenge ahead of us this morning, to rise to the task, and to know that we accomplished the critical work right when it needed to get done. That said, dry clothes never felt so lovely!

Week 19: Vegetable life cycle complete

There was a change in the air today and nobody knew why, but we all agreed: it smelled like winter. Cold, wet ground and cold, windy air, a characteristic winter look about the farm--no longer the beautiful sunny fall days with still-vibrant plants. Though it was cloudy and cool all day we still had to work to keep the just-picked greens from wilting--not from sun and heat this time, but from the unrelenting wind. All plants are noticing this change to the cold months; nothing but the storage crops is in its prime anymore. We're just getting vegetables out of the field while they're still useful.

The individual vegetables in your share might not look too different from week to week, but over time we all get to see the full cycle of production from these plants here at the farm. Remember when the spinach was huge and meaty, each leaf picked individually from the plant? Now the leaves are small, clear-cut with a knife to get all we can.  This is perhaps the biggest difference from grocery store vegetables: the fact that the size, shape, and taste of the produce varies over the course of the season as the plants mature and then decline. Commercial farms grow precisely what works best with their soil, at the optimal time of year, harvest it all at once at the peak and then it's on to the next crop. Winter spinach from the south; summer spinach from the north. Greens from California and its balmy bug-free climate. Tomatoes from Florida and carrots and cabbage from New York, or even Canada. No commercial wholesale farmer in Virginia would even think of having this variety of crops all in production at once, but for farmers like us, that's precisely the point. You get to have a connection to what's actually happening on the farm, in real time, as borne out by your weekly "snapshot" of production. 

Week 17: The botanical roots of seasonal food

As you may know from trivia night, many of the "vegetables" we eat are actually fruits. A fruit, botanically speaking, is a seed-bearing structure from a flowering plant--such as a tomato, pepper, eggplant, or squash. Vegetables are all other plant parts, such as roots (carrots), leaves (salads), or flower parts (broccoli). Well, then there's tubers (potatoes), which are neither roots nor fruits, though they do generate new plants... but we'll leave that to another day.

To grow the fruit we eat, these plants must first grow a plant, then flowers, and then finally the food. This is a lot of effort for a plant, and plants that reproduce this way grow primarily in the summer when there is a long period of high-energy growing conditions. In the cool fall, with their seed-producing work complete, the warm-season fruiting crops slow way down. Our work turns towards the true vegetables.

We don't need to wait for vegetables to grow a fruit, since we'll just consume the plant itself. Moreover, unlike the summer crops, these plants (think spinach and kale) LIKE to grow in the cool fall weather and don't mind that there is no time to grow a fruit. They are simply aiming to get a head start on spring by producing a plant this fall before hunkering down for the winter. In March, when the weather warms, they will send up a seed stalk straight away before the competition even has a chance to germinate. And those beets, turnips, carrots? That's where the plant stores its energy for the long winter, to send up new shoots in spring. All these root crops and tuber crops are traditional fall foods because that is the time when the plants are stockpiling energy for spring. And the storage crops like carrots, beets, and potatoes are our traditional winter food since they store well through the winter when outdoor plants are frozen and dead -- precisely why the plants create those storage roots in the first place.

Week 16: On squash longevity

Contrary to popular belief (of some), winter squash does not grow in the winter, ready to be picked and eaten at will. Rather, the plants grow just the same as other squash:  in the heat of the summer. It's the fruits that persist into the winter. Summer squash (like zucchini) is an immature squash, with minimal seed development and tender flesh. Winter squash, on the other hand, is completely mature, with viable seeds and a hard rind to protect them. We're lucky if a zucchini plant stays alive for a month after beginning to produce fruit, but winter squash has to stick it out for a full 100 days. We sow the seeds mid-June and, while the tomatoes arrive, the peppers inundate us, the eggplant surprises us, the squash just grows. We work every day with those other crops, and the butternut squash--well, all we do is watch it. Finally when all those summer vegetables wane with the coming of autumn, it is time to clip and gather the winter squash. Then they cure in a warm place for two weeks to turn starches to sugars, and now, finally, arrive in your shares this week.
 

Week 14: Spinach!

Happy Autumnal Equinox!

As if on cue, you will find the first spinach of the season in your bags today! And there's plenty of it to look forward to in your fall future, too. This year's spinach is some of the best I've grown--and it will get even tastier after frost hits.

Spinach is a beautiful crop, an amazing sight to behold--particularly because it is so darn finicky to grow! Picking it this morning, I couldn't keep from carrying on about how fantastic the rows look this year.

In any spinach-growing locale, spinach is seeded in the ground, emerges four days later, and produces beautiful green leaves in six weeks. We are not in a spinach-growing locale. It's too hot in August for spinach seeds to germinate reliably or at all, but delaying planting until cool weather would yield a crop in November--far too late to be useful this season.

A typical farmer conversation about spinach:
Me: "Spinach is going all right this year, I gave up on direct seeding and I'm growing all my spinach from transplants." 
Farmer: "Yeah, spinach, it never comes up!"

We all know this, yet persist in direct seeding some because it should be such an easy crop.

Now, you see...I DID plan to go through the hassle of transplanting thousands of spinach plants again this year, but then the weather forecast showed a period of cool rainy weather in early August at the perfect planting date for fall spinach. I seized the day. It worked. Five days of unseasonably cool days and moist soil established an excellent stand of spinach. And, thanks to the nitrogen-producing covercrop planted there last spring, the plants are beautiful and green instead of small and yellow as results from, well...too little nitrogen, or too much water, too little water, too low pH...and who knows what else. In any case, factors aligned this year and having seen all the ways the crop can go wrong, I'm really excited about spinach right now.

Week 12: Winter already?

While Labor Day often marks the season change from Summer to Autumn, the actual first day of Fall is September 22.  I always look forward to September and its beautiful fall days, as a light at the end of the summer tunnel, even though I grudgingly remember that the weather only changes towards the end of the month.  Not this year, though!  This cool period is proving not to be a momentary blip, but a pattern here to stay.  We're wearing winter caps and vests in the field and today marks an Autumn milestone for the season: Your first brassicas! Brassicas are the crop family containing the leafy cool-weather crops like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, etc.

While the cool rainy weather has been making the brassica plants grow like crazy, the summer crops just can't hack it.  Tomatoes are on the way out, the expected flood of peppers was dampened by the rain and low temps, and zucchini is quickly succumbing to powdery mildew.  You'll still be seeing these vegetables for a little bit though, and there's plenty of new greens and roots on the way. This is a delicious time of year, with the blend of seasons.

Week 11: The Story of the Rutgers Tomato

The red tomatoes this week are (mostly) Rutgers tomatoes, a variety introduced by Rutgers University in 1934 as an improved and locally adapted general red tomato for processing and fresh market. It spread out of New Jersey, where thousands of acres of tomatoes were planted in the Garden State, across the country and became the standard red tomato variety nationwide for some decades. It might very well be "The tomato you remember from growing up."  Being an open pollinated rather than hybrid variety, the seeds were selected and adapted by local farmers to excel in their particular locality, and the original Rutgers strain that started it all is long lost.

However!  In a sealed vault some Rutgers researchers chanced to find original seeds for the parent tomatoes originally crossed (then selected and stabilized) to create the famed Rutgers tomato. For the university's 250th anniversary their plant breeders grew and then crossed those same original seeds, selecting a variety that matched the characteristics of the original Rutgers.

Out of interest in such a historically important tomato, I planted this reconstructed Rutgers as well as Rutgers VFA, one of the strains available in modern seed catalogs. And here, now, this week, I have the results of the trial! The verdict is...well...they are both somewhat lackluster. And disappointingly, the newly released Rutgers 250 is decidedly inferior to the Rutgers VFA! Both are more susceptible to various blemishes and defects than the hybrid reds you've been getting up until now. Fortunately, the Rutgers tomatoes are determinate, meaning they produce most of their fruit all at once, so we won't have to deal with them much longer.

Week 4: We're all on the vegetables' schedule

Heirloom tomatoes! Half a pint of cherry tomatoes! Eggplant! Green pepper! That's some summertime excitement, all of a sudden. We shouldn't be surprised, and yet we are taken aback by the sudden flood at a time when we're usually still in a dribble. Peppers and tomatoes did not make an appearance until Week 6 last season, when the spring was unseasonably cold. Eggplant didn't show up until Week 11! The last couple weeks it's been a bit of a scrounge to even line up enough eggplant for just half of the CSA, and today, to our amazement, we picked more than 500 pounds. This goes to show you how much the weather affects plant growth even if they are planted at the same time each year .

This is the point in the season when we switch gears. We are now working on the vegetables' schedules--not our own. We've been doing work, but on our own schedule, as modified by weather and worker availability. Now we pick vegetables on their schedule, in whatever quantity exists, and adjust our lives accordingly. I didn't expect more than a continuing sprinkle of tomatoes today, and so harvested these green peppers as a new item this week. We gave out eggplant recently thinking it wouldn't be the real deal for a while, but having a quarter ton on hand by surprise, well...plans change. We had to throw our whole original vegetable list out the window and start fresh when we saw the reality of what came in from the fields.

So, just like us, you are now on the vegetable's schedule. Your expectations of what might be in the bag might not be correct either, but just roll with it.  Lettuce and chard are ready for you whenever you like during the week, and potatoes and cabbage will wait patiently to become dinner anytime. But tomatoes? Tomatoes tell YOU when to eat them and that's that. Leave them on the counter until they're ripe; too soon and they're uninspiring but too late and they're mush. Let the vegetables tell you what to eat for dinner, and your CSA meal plan falls into place.

Week 19: Eat Like a Farmer

It's almost November, and I think we've all had real frost now! That picture up top is actually frost on our rowcover! As we get into November you'll notice a definite shift towards root and storage crops with your greens. There's no need to eat these vegetables the week you receive them--roots like carrots and beets will last quite a while in a bag in your fridge; sweet potatoes and winter squash keep well in a cool, dark place.

Although some will last, there's often an urgency or obligation associated with cooking up of all the vegetables. Making a splendid recipe certainly requires some thought and effort, but I think the baseline goal of using everything up before it's too late requires much less stress.

When I come home from the farm after a long day, I usually have a lot of the same vegetables you see every week and I'm not about to look up a recipe. My go-to, easy way to stuff vegetables into a meal is...well, basically to do just that. An entire bunch of kale fits into tomato sauce for pasta, peppers hide in morning eggs, and all sorts of roots can get cubed and roasted in a jumble all together. Really, almost anything can disappear into tomato sauce, or inside a quesadilla, or atop a pizza. A pot of lentils boiling will consume the most surprising quantities of produce.  Often I'll take out the largest frying pan and cook up as many vegetables as can fit then add them to lentils that night, eggs the next morning, and be glad to find the rest in the fridge later in the week.

The point of the matter is that cooking doesn't have to be super involved. It can be slightly inventive each time while you still adhere to a self-created norm that works for you, and then you can experiment when you have time. Use whatever you have. If the vegetables get cooked, they'll get eaten.

Week 17: Frost Gambles

The first frost is always exciting. This year it was a tease of a frost. Just a light thing, not a killing frost, but it got our attention.

Among farmers, the timing of the first frost is always a matter of some discussion. We do know it will be sometime in October. Most years temperatures tentatively edge towards the 30s, and then some forecasted low of 35 on a clear, calm night heralds a likely frost. We gamble, either hoping for the best or scrambling to prepare for what might happen overnight.

This year that first frost gamble took us a bit by surprise. Monday's low was forecast at 39 (concerning), then up to 40 (no problem), and on Monday evening I thought I might as well text a neighbor to get an update: 37 degrees!  A real possibility of frost at ground level. While the plants would mostly likely scrape by, it would be irresponsible not to prepare. In most years an impending frost produces a flurry of activity around deciding what crops are worth covering with rowcover and which will be left unprotected to die, but this year the only frost-tender crop worth saving was the peppers. So we covered them in a few minutes and that was that. The work ended up being unnecessary, but only by the thinnest of margins. While peppers are hardy, some of the flowers next door at Greenstone Fields showed some damage on their very outermost petals. Next time it will be for real.

Even without a killing frost, the tomatoes met their end on Monday. They hadn't been ripening well for a few weeks (the plants went in the ground six months ago, after all), so we called it off. We found all the underripe green tomatoes and sent them to Sweet Farm Sauerkraut, then cut down the twine from the stakes and left the plants in a heap on the ground.

The death of a season's work is bittersweet, but it's better when the plants had the chance to live out their full useful life--and nobody minds the opportunity to dismantle things during pleasant October days rather than in blustery November.

Week 10: On the definition of "Heirloom" tomatoes...

The botanical definition of an heirloom tomato is simply any open-pollinated variety, as opposed to a hybrid variety of tomato. That is, pollinating the flower with pollen from a plant of the same variety makes fruit containing seeds that will reproduce the tomato, true to type. Growers can save seed from their crop and sow again in following years. The seeds can be passed down so they become ‘heirlooms’, a prized variety from the past still popular today.

And perhaps this is the "social" definition of an heirloom tomato: an open-pollinated variety that has been kept in a family or achieved a measure of local or regional fame. Many heirloom types are immigrants--cherished varieties that can be specifically tied to a group of people and were brought to America by early settlers. The preservation of these seeds was not due to sentimentality, but because these were time-tested varieties bearing an implicit seal of approval. Heirlooms represent, quite literally, the interwoven fabric of both natural and human history. It's pretty fascinating

And the economic definition of an heirloom is simply any open-pollinated tomato that has the characteristic exciting stripes, colors, irregular shapes and strong flavors we associate with "heirloom tomatoes" -- regardless of historical lineage.  Many people today still breed new open-pollinated varieties.  Some the ones I grow were created recently (check out Wild Boar Farms), while others are perhaps 100 years old.

I buy grafted tomato transplants, and when the grafter ordered seeds for what she thought was a strain of the classic "brandywine" she unknowingly bought seeds for an unrelated plain red tomato--we were both surprised. This red tomato is in fact an heirloom by the cultural definition, but has little value because it is red like a regular tomato. I suppose it doesn't meet the "aesthetic" definition either.  And while we're at it, yes, there are hybrid varieties that have the heirloom tomato "look" but are actually botanical hybrids.

So in the end, the idea of an "Heirloom Tomato" might seem perfectly clear only until we actually know something about it -- kind of like a lot of things in the world, perhaps!

Week 6: A Quintessential Farming Day

Today was a quintessential farming day: too much to do in a short window of opprtunity. With evening rain forecast after weeks of parching heat THIS is the day to seed the main fall crops. Any later and crops risk not reaching full size; any earlier it would have been too dry for germination. Of course, today is also the time for picking all the vegetables, which usually takes us all day. In the afternoon I prepped the beds, and as the time for seeding became closer the rainclouds also drew near, ahead of schedule. I made my best quick calculation on seeding rates and we started walking, one person pushing the 1950s Planet Jr. and another on the modern Jang seeder. 10 beds of beets and as many of carrots, 280 feet long, 3 rows per bed--over a mile and a half of root crops. It began drizzling. We closed the hopper lids. It began raining. We walked on. Soon we were soaked, and soon too was the ground. Our seeders gumming up with soggy dirt, we made it to the end of a field block, and other workers began replacing the rowcover behind us to protect the beds from compacting in the impending storm. We completed half the seeding, which is good enough considering the conditions, and the critical seeds went in the ground. Then it was on to the rest of the CSA picking and packing, to wrap up the regular day.

Farming, in a way, is about getting things done during the window of opportunity, no matter what ridiculousness is required. I'm happy with the day. We all felt the accomplishment of getting the job done in poor conditions, and the farm is better off than if we'd given up and waited until later.
 

Week 15: The Plight of the Weather Forecaster

So it rained a lot. Five inches and counting--quite a surprise! Rain hasn't gotten in the way of the vegetables much this season (at least on your end of things), but this week you might want to wash things more carefully to avoid a crunchy surprise. Spinach, in particular, is known for acquiring grit after rain. The carrots might require some individual attention as well, though they really do look much better than when they came out of the mud.

You might think that farmers are in tune with the weather, but really we are in tune with the weather forecasters. Sure, I can guess whether the afternoon thunderstorm will pass by or hit square on, but the more important skill lies in guessing the accuracy of the predicted weather. We pay attention to WeatherUnderground for hourly detail, Weather.com for sensational hype, and NOAA for the conservative guesses of the meteorology nerds. By knowing what sources are good for what purposes, we hope to place smart bets on when to schedule the critical work.

This season year, however, has been endlessly difficult for forecasters and farmers alike. Everybody has done an unusually poor job at guessing the weather. Nearly every time there was a small chance of some minor sprinkle, we ended up with a serious rain. And so I guess I should have known that this week's uncertain chance of a couple inches was actually forewarning a 100% chance of at least half a foot of rain.

And all this before Hurricane Joaquin! Which, depending on what model you look at, will head...just about anywhere. My guess is for no hurricane here. But you can bet I'm ready to go batten the hatches if anything changes.

Week 9: Collect them, trade them with your friends...

Earlier this week I was on the phone with Hana of Potomac Vegetable Farms, and we got to talking about how it feels like the plants went on vacation. "Yeah!"  She agreed, "The rows look GREAT, but there aren't as many vegetables out there to pick... Maybe we slacked off on the fertilizing schedule." So then I called up Mo at Moutoux Orchard, who I know is exceedingly diligent at keeping plant nutrition in line. "Are your plants on vacation?" I asked. "It always seems this way at this time of year," she replied, "Cucumbers and squash are on their way out, eggplant took a dive, and all we have a lot of are peppers." Then yesterday Kevin Grove emailed me, from Quarter Branch Farm:  "Would you have anything you could sell me for next week’s CSA?  I am really struggling to fill the bags without repeating the same crops each week."
 

So, we farmers are all in the same boat. A smaller number of vegetables, and the vegetables we do have are the same ones we've had all month. Rather than give yet more eggplant and beets, I thought it would be nice to send those things to my neighbors and trade around. Eggplant went to PVF, beets to Willowsford, cucumbers to Moutoux Orchard. And in return you get some potatoes, tomatoes, and other things you haven't seen yet this season. The bag's a bit lighter this week but we'll make up for it next time, when there's more stuff coming in as the season turns to fall.

Week 5: Tomato Blight History

It's tomato season. Expect to see lots of tomatoes for a while! We'll try to keep you equipped with different types of recipes and ideas for them, to keep it interesting. We grow only heirloom tomatoes, which I think are just the best. But you might see some regular red tomatoes too from time to time. 

Tomatoes. On many farms in this region, the tomato crop can make or break the season. They are just SO good, so plentiful, and with such eager eaters. On the farm I first worked on, where I learned to farm, tomatoes were the name of the game. We spent our entire season thinking about tomatoes. In February, March, and April in the greenhouse. In May and June, transplanting them into the fields--three successions, covering perhaps a third of the farm. And then we mulched, staked, and strung them up, tying and twirling tomato plants to tame them. And then July through October, finally, we picked. And picked, and picked tomatoes nearly every day. At the first frost, we were glad to be through.

This was 10 years ago. Since then, the Late Blight disease appeared (cause of the Great Potato Famine) and, in recent years, has often led to a quick end to the tomato season as well as a great deal of worry and conversation among tomato growers. To me, it feels like a real risk to plant tons of tomatoes out in the open field like we did in years past. So, this season, I built a hoophouse--a covering for the tomatoes--with only two rows of tomatoes under it, which feels like hardly any at all. But I expect those few plants to be more productive and bear all season, protected from disease-spreading rain. So far, so good: The plants are green and tall, and we're picking as many tomatoes from that tiny patch as we ever did last year.